SALT LAKE CITY — This is a call for no more madness in March.
The NCAA Tournament is a beautiful thing, full of inspiring stories and heart-warming, thrill-ride moments. This March, the beautiful chaos of the men's tournament has been particularly captivating. From the bracket-busting upsets to emergence of unlikely stars like Loyola-Chicago’s 98-year-old chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the tournament has even managed to eclipse any talk of the corruption investigations that threaten to penalize some of the most storied programs in the country.
Succeeding in the tournament, even just a little as the University of Maryland Baltimore County did in pulling off the first upset of a No. 1 seed by a 16 seed in tournament history, can mean millions of dollars for a school.
Experts estimate that schools receive millions of dollars in free advertising, resulting in higher application numbers and more high-profile athletic recruits.
ESPN’s David Purdum estimated that 70 million NCAA Tournament brackets were filled out this year, wagering an average of $29 per bracket that would result in $10.4 billion won and lost on tournament games.
In March of 2017, a record $422 million was bet on basketball through Nevada sports books. That resulted, according to Perdum’s report, in a $21.5 million windfall, making it the “second-most lucrative basketball month ever.”
So while a lot of people are making a lot of money on the most popular college sports event, there is one group of people that makes absolutely nothing on the games — the student-athletes.
That should change.
It should change immediately, and the fact that it would be difficult should not deter NCAA officials from finding a way to compensate the players.
The argument against paying players has been twofold. First, paying players would taint our beloved amateur sports. Second, players are already being compensated with a free education.
The reality is that everyone except the players is getting extremely wealthy, when, in fact, without the players, there is nothing to monetize.
While student-athletes are unable to accept a free meal from the parents of a teammate, every Power 5 conference commissioner’s salary now exceeds $2 million. While conferences and NCAA officials make millions, while coaches salaries climb higher and higher, often in the millions for top schools, student-athletes cannot be compensated, even pennies on the dollar, for merchandise universities sell based on their hard work and sacrifice.
Amateurism in this context is dead.
Club and accelerated youth sports helped pound the final nail in the coffin. Recent investigations into club programs and NCAA teams show that there is massive, wide-spread rule-breaking going on, and there is no cohesive leadership about how to solve the problems or whether or not the NCAA can.
So mourn it if you want, but please realize that times have changed. Sports is a business and these young players are commodities. They are the engine in this money-making machine, and they should be compensated for their efforts.
A recent podcast (Code Switch) examined the tournament’s financial success, and then looked at whether race plays a role in the public sentiment for or against paying athletes.
One number was particularly alarming.
While 56 percent of college basketball players are black and 55 percent of college football players are black, only 2.4 percent of students at these same schools are black men.
“So you have black men on these campuses who are basically invisible in the classrooms,” said Code Switch’s Gene Demby in an interview with NPR. “But at any given time and during any given academic year, the most high-profile undergraduate at one of these universities is likely to be a black basketball phenom or a black football star.”
Demby points out that a diversity expert from USC looked at Power 5 schools and found that almost half of the black students in these two revenue-generating sports are not graduating from college.
The podcast talks with a number of people who come to a general conclusion that the time commitments required to succeed in these sports makes studying a secondary endeavor.
Frankly, they're more valuable to the school as quarterbacks and point guards than they are as teachers or engineers.
To further complicate the debate, these young men are often pushed into less-demanding classes and majors, making the degrees that are earned less valuable to them and their families because they may never work in those fields.
Much of this could be addressed by simply acknowledging some harsh realities.
First, times have changed, and college sports is about winning and making money. It can also be about helping young people find a better life, but that’s not the purpose of most Power 5 programs — just take a look at what happens to coaches who can’t win (after just a couple of seasons) and players who don’t live up to expectations.
It’s a business.
We have, through our support of the NCAA, allowed our college athletic programs to become farm programs for professional leagues. That’s hurt individual student-athletes and entire programs, and it’s hijacked what college sports once was.
There is, however, no going back.
College coaches need to push athletic directors to force the NCAA to do the right thing. Advertisers need to stop paying the NCAA to exploit these young players, many of whom come from poor, marginalized communities.
We need to do more to lift up the players and their families, and there is plenty of money to do this. The argument will be how much do you pay and which players get compensated. Again, do not sacrifice "doing the right thing" on the altar of "this will be hard."
Change is a must.
I am ashamed that year after year, we read stories on the windfall the NCAA and schools reap from this tournament, even as I talk to parents who have never seen their children play college sports in person because they can’t afford to travel to the school they represent.
It’s appallingly unfair. This needs to be the last March Madness that makes billions on the backs of young men who aren’t allowed to even take the classes they want because the demands of performing are so intense.